It’s often said that while getting to the very top is extremely difficult, staying at the top is an even more daunting proposition. There is a reason why we don’t see too many teams defend their title and while that has been done by some great teams in recent times, there is one accomplishment that tends to be difficult for even the great ones, which is to pull off a three-peat.
Many have tried, not just in the NBA but in the other major US pro sports as well, but none of them have managed to accomplish that for 20 years, since the Lakers led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant did it from 2000 to 2002.
The latest to go for it happened to be the Tampa Bay Lightning, who lost in the Stanley Cup Finals in 6 games to the Colorado Avalanche. It just goes to show what a special accomplishment it was by those Lakers and just how great they truly were. At the forefront of that Lakers squad was Shaquille O’Neal who put up mind-boggling numbers in those 3 Finals, averaging 35.8 points, 15.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, and 2.9 blocks per game.
O’Neal was league MVP in 2000 as he led them past the Indiana Pacers in 6 games and the Lakers perhaps hit their absolute peak the following year in 2001. They ran through the Western Conference playoffs by sweeping the Blazers, the Kings, and the number 1 seeded Spurs who were led by Tim Duncan. The 2001 league MVP Allen Iverson finally ended that streak at 11 wins in Game 1 of the Finals but he was powerless to prevent the Lakers juggernaut from winning the next 4 games. By now, Kobe Bryant had also emerged as one of the premier guards in the NBA and the two were near unstoppable in the 2002 Finals as they swept the Nets to clinch their historic three-peat.
It was just the 5th time in league history that a team had won 3 in a row, after the Minneapolis Lakers (1952 to 1954), the dynastic Celtics who won 8 in a row (1959 to 1966), and Michael Jordan’s Bulls in the 1990s who accomplished it twice, from 1991 to 1993 and from 1996 to 1998.
Since then, a few teams have gotten close but winning the third title was a step too far every single time. Bryant won back-to-back titles in 2009 & 2010 but was swept out of the playoffs in 2011 while LeBron James’ Miami Heat who won in 2012 & 2013, were beaten in 5 games in the 2014 Finals by the Spurs. The Golden State Warriors led by Stephen Curry were the latest to attempt a three-peat in the NBA, but injuries played spoilsport as they lost to the Raptors in 2019. Injuries are part and parcel of the game and it just shows how difficult it is to win 3 in a row.
It’s even more difficult to pull it off in modern times and it is a testament to the greatness of those Lakers teams that they managed to accomplish it. It’s just a shame that Kobe and Shaq couldn’t get along off the court or who knows what these guys would have gone on to achieve together. O’Neal referred to the two of them as the most dominant duo in NBA history and it is one of the bigger what-ifs of recent time.